Members of the Japanese mafia, known locally as the yakuza or the boryokudan, are both feared and stigmatized in Japanese society. Few are able to escape from that life of crime and violence that they were once drawn into. Yet at the Takakura-gumi acting agency, nearly 60 reformed yakuza have been given a second chance at life, according to CNN.
Ryuichi Baba, who spent 20 years with the mafia before leaving his life of crime behind six years ago, is one former yakuza who has found a new purpose — and a small form of absolution — through art. Abused by his mother, who was involved with the yakuza, and bullied by gangsters as a child, he joined the organization, making money any way that he could to avoid being beaten. He mostly turned to sex trafficking to help pay his way.
Baba tried to escape the yakuza several times, but each time he was hunted down and punished for his trespass. He has lost most of his teeth in the beatings he received, forcing him to wear a false set.
“I lived like a slave,” Baba said. “I was so scared. I felt like they had me under mind-control.”
I interviewed the kumicho (or the don, in yakuza lingo) of Takakura-gumi, who hires ex-gangsters for his talent agency. Maybe you've seen a few of them on television? Cool concept.
— Alex Martin (@AlexktMartin) August 15, 2018
Still hoping to escape, Baba taught himself computer skills in secret, building a sort of cult following through the publication of his tattoo art, but he eventually lost hope. Finally, feeling that there was no other choice, Baba attempted suicide. Fortunately, he was discovered during the act and rushed to a hospital, where he survived. Police convinced him to leave his life of crime.
“When I left the mob, I felt like I moved from hell to heaven,” said Baba.
It is difficult for former yakuza to re-enter public life. The telltale tattoos they receive from the yakuza leave them unable to hide their past from public view, and they are discriminated against by a society that loathes them. They are unable to open bank accounts or rent properties. Over 80 percent of Japanese businesses refuse to hire ex-yakuza.
One that does is Takakura-gumi, an acting agency which has compiled a group of dozens of former yakuza and given them opportunities to portray versions of their former selves within the Japanese film industry. It is a second chance that few receive.
Today, Baba runs his own software business through the help of his wife Mika, who has aided Baba’s ascent from yakuza life. He is also carving out a side career as a YouTube personality, voicing the part of wheelchair-bound yakuza boss Shigewo Jhogashima in an animated online show. And, of course, performing in a number of films.
“I never aspired to be an actor, but I thought that if I became recognizable and wasn’t a nobody, it would be harder for the mob to hurt me,” Baba told CNN. “That’s why I deliberately put myself out into the media spotlight.”
Similar to the American mafia, the yakuza engage in a range of illegal activities from drug and sex trafficking to money laundering and extortion. They have strict honor codes — many yakuza are missing parts of fingers due to their offenses — and complex hierarchies. Unlike the American mafia, the yakuza have more of a public presence. Many organizations are registered with the police, who list the business addresses of yakuza organization on their website. At their height fifty years ago, the yakuza boasted nearly 200,000 members in over 5,000 groups.
However, Japan began to crack down on the yakuza in back in 2010, passing a series of regulations to limit their expansion. It became harder for the yakuza to recruit new members or receive payment from legitimate businesses and persons. The regulations even made it more difficult for the yakuza to buy mobile phones or rent apartments. The laws have been effective in limiting the yakuza, and the National Police Agency report that yakuza membership is at its lowest level in years.